On Translation: The Semantics of Samadhi

A neurologist and Zen practitioner charts the phases and meanings of samadhiJames H. Austin

Science without religion is lame,
religion without science is blind.

Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

With all your science can you tell
how it is, and whence it is
that light comes into the soul?


Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862)

The time comes when no reflection appears at all. One comes to notice nothing, feel nothing, hear nothing, see nothing . . . But it is not vacant emptiness. Rather it is the purest condition of our existence.


Katsuki Sekida

A SLIPPERY TOPIC, samadhi. A word so many-sided that it poses major semantic problems. It suffers in translation, as will anyone who tries to tag it with but one meaning. Some render it as “concentration,” others as “absorption,” still others as “trance,” “stillness,” “collectiveness,” etc.

The ambiguities date to ancient times. In Sanskrit, samadhi implied a “placing together,” a joining of things in the sense of a union. Successive cultural traditions employed the word in different ways. Six different Chinese characters were used to render the term samadhi, three used to convey the sound and three others to confer meaning.

Drawing on ancient yogic practices, the early Indian Buddhists specified some eight levels along the pathway to what they called samadhi. The levels are difficult to visualize in the abstract, and Zen itself will tend to pay rather little formal notice to such divisions. However, they do describe sequences which are still of general interest to us. For example, the first four stages unfold when the meditator concentrates on some object, some material form, or on some related concept. Initially, thoughts cease, whether they are derived from sensations which had internal or external origins. Then, a sustained, one-pointed rapt attention sweeps in to center on the primary object of concentration. It is accompanied by feelings of rapture and of bliss. Clearly, we are on the path referred to as concentrative meditation.

translation feature image summer 1998The early texts denote the next four phases of samadhi as being “formless levels.” During these successively more advanced stages, rapture then fades, respiration slows markedly, bliss fades, and equanimity enters. There arise further refinements of one-pointedness and equanimity. And by this time, all definite body sensations such as bliss or pleasure are lost. Now, infinite space becomes the object of consciousness, followed by an awareness of objectless infinity, and then by an absorption into a void which has “nothingness” as its object. Finally, within the eighth phase, there evolves “neither perception, nor nonperception,” accompanied by additional refinements of the feelings of equanimity and of one-pointedness. At such advanced levels, the field of consciousness is empty of distracting thoughts or recognized patterns of association. Higher levels of samadhi become accessible only to subjects who make a full, intense commitment to the concentrative meditation techniques, not to the casual meditator.

The word samadhi is currently used in a more restricted sense in Buddhism, where it continues to connote many of the phases, described above, which arise along this general path of concentrative meditation. But in Hinduism generally, the elasticity within the term allows it to be stretched. So that sometimes it also goes on to convey that state of deep concentration in which union or absorption occurs into something closer to the “ultimate” reality.

For our present purposes, samadhi can still imply a bringing together, and a uniting, if we regard such a union as implying the way awareness moves toward, blends into, holds on to, and becomes absorbed into whatever is in its field. To me, samadhi needs to be qualified in order to find its most appropriate use in the Zen context. I reserve the term for complex states of extraordinary absorption. I prefer the general term, absorption. It recommends itself for two reasons: (1) it conveys the way the physical self dissolves when one’s attention is enhanced far beyond its ordinary limits; and (2) it implies becoming totally committed - almost held, it would seem - within one attentional field to the exclusion of others.

Think back to some occasion in ordinary everyday life when a critical event captured your attention. To the angler who fishes with a bobber, one-pointed absorption comes when it plunges out of sight. Only a big fish could yank it this far down! Time evaporates to a standstill during such moments. Well-coordinated movements may go on with rod and reel, but consciousness of the physical self drops far off into the background.

A satisfying activity or hobby can totally engross a person for many minutes or hours. To become playfully lost in a hobby means to submerge oneself so deeply and with such a light touch that no person remains who worries about the project’s success or failure. Then the hobbyist is no longer the captive of time. Life then flows along joyously. Nishitani puts it succinctly: “You are in-samadhi when you are no longer conscious that you are thinking” (italics mine). A Japanese word for this state is yugizammai, “playing samadhi.” It literally means play-absorption. It bears emphasis that any person who engages in play-absorption must still conduct highly efficient playing behavior out in the real world at large. So when you enter “playing samadhi,” you don’t lose that acute vision, hearing, or the other requisite sensate functions - a loss that would, of course, then make it impossible skillfully to land that fish or to perform any other physical activity.

translation feature image summer 1998Even in its simpler everyday forms, samadhi implies an awareness that expands outward in the direction of merging with the object concentrated upon. Examples could be the surgeon whose absorption arises out of close volitional control when he copes with a crisis on the operating table; the spectator who can’t help becoming wrapped up in the baseball game when the winning run rounds third base. In such instances, an ongoing external event totally captures that person’s attention. Some would use the term “positive samadhi” for such situations. For our purposes here, it seems better to preserve this same key distinction by introducing a less elastic term. And external absorption seems to be the most appropriate way to describe such moments when the person’s eyes are wide open and seeing, in preference to “external samadhi.”

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